Archive for August, 2019

Joe Perry and more in Gitarist!


For anyone who knows me personally, it is not much of a surprise that Joe Perry is the reason I started playing guitar. He is likely also the reason why the Gibson Les Paul is my preferred guitar to this very day. Imagine my joy when, after a meager period when it comes to Gitarist interviews, I got the chance to speak to Perry about his new signature Gibson ‘Gold Rush’ Les Paul Axcess, the new Hollywood Vampires and several other things I have been wondering for all these years I followed his career. Fortunately, he was quite talkative and took a lot of time to answer all my questions. The resulting article is four pages long and even made him grace the cover of Gitarist this month, as you can see above.

There is even more from my hand to be read in this month’s issue of Gitarist, however. At the North Sea Jazz festival, I had a very nice chat with Paul Acket Award winner Julian Lage about interaction with other musicians and how his Telecasters help him to sound more like the jazz guitarist he wants to be than his old archtop guitars ever did. Slightly less conventional is the choice for pedal steel virtuoso Robert Randolph, who is possibly the biggest innovator of the pedal steel by incorporating his love for Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robben Ford and Jimi Hendrix into his steel playing. His funky Family Band is nothing to scoff at either. Randolph is someone who can speak enthusiastically about his instrument and I am glad I was there to capture his enthusiasm for an interview in Gitarist magazine.

If you are a guitar freak, there is definitely more to enjoy here. My colleague Patrick Lamberts spoke to Stef Delbaere, a young Belgian guitarist who has the difficult, yet interesting task of replacing the legendary Erwin Java in King Of The World. George Benson is one of my favorite jazz guitarists – in spite of his horrible show at North Sea Jazz last year – and there is a one page interview with him in the magazine as well, along another wealth of gear reviews and our report about a visit to the Nazareth, Pennsylvania factory where the world-class acoustic guitars of C.F. Martin & Co. are made.

Gitarist is in stores now and if you can read Dutch, I can only urge you to check it out!

Album of the Week 34-2019: Helloween – 7 Sinners


After the departure of guitarist Roland Grapow and drummer Uli Kusch, Helloween was adrift for a while. ‘Rabbit Don’t Come Easy’ was a confused mess and ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys: The Legacy’ an overlong double album that tried too hard. ‘Gambling With The Devil’ was a welcome return to form for the Germans. The album’s highlights – the brilliant ‘Paint A New World’ in particular – are still among the band’s best material, but the album did have its consistency issues. ‘7 Sinners’ fixes these with a collection of powerful, melodic power metal anthems that will refuse to leave your head any time soon.

In the years preceding ‘7 Sinners’, Helloween had gone from a leader in the power metal field to a band forcing themselves into formula they had devised themselves two decades prior. ‘7 Sinners’, on the other hand, sounds like the band wasn’t trying to be anything. The album is filled to the brim with generally well-written songs that are often catchy, sometimes a bit silly and usually quite bombastic. Unlike ‘Gambling With The Devil’, ‘7 Sinners’ doesn’t really feature any skipworthy songs, though ‘The Smile Of The Sun’ isn’t exactly one of the stronger ballads the band has to offer.

Bassist Markus Grosskopf stated that ‘Where The Sinners Go’ and ‘Are You Metal?’ were the first two songs written for the album and they are the opening tracks of the record, as kind of a mission statement. The former is a midtempo stomper with an above average amount of aggression, while the latter proves that on a good day, Helloween knows perfectly well how to inject a little silliness into the music without sacrificing any of the melodic and catchy qualities they possess. The anthemic flute solo showcase ‘Raise The Noise’ and the excellent semi-epic ‘If A Mountain Could Talk’ are other prime examples of that craft.

Despite those moments, ‘7 Sinners’ is one of the darker Helloween albums in overall tone. And it’s there where the album truly shines. ‘World Of Fantasy’ is a tale of escapism wrapped in a fantastic power metal tune of which the melodies are full of hopeful melancholy, while the odd theatricality of the proggy ‘My Sacrifice’ accounts for one of the album’s most pleasant surprises. ‘Who Is Mr. Madman?’ reprises the main melody of ‘Perfect Gentleman’ in what is furthermore a delightfully defiant power metal tune with an incredible chorus. ‘Long Live The King’ and the amazingly epic diptych of ‘Not Yet Today’ and ‘Far In The Future’ display a degree of dark aggression I thought was lost after ‘The Dark Ride’.

Helloween sometimes loses direction and needs someone to put them back on track every once in a while. Whoever it was this time – the writing credits would suggest their expressive singer Andi Deris – it really worked. ‘7 Sinners’ is the most consistent Helloween album since ‘Better Than Raw’ and certainly the crowning achievement of the line-up with guitarist Sascha Gerstner and drummer Dani Löble. The only minor complaint is that Charlie Bauerfeind’s ultra-bombastic production sometimes makes Helloween sound more like former Helloween-worshippers Blind Guardian than themselves, but it just works for this material. For what it’s worth, I prefer this to the original two ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys’ albums.

Also, bonus points for bringing back the little pumpkin illustrations depicting each song. Especially because Marcos Moura’s comic style is much more fun to look at than the dull computer art of the pumpkins in ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys: The Legacy’. His style also feels like a tribute to the cool illustrations Frederick Moulaert did for the classic Helloween stuff.

Recommended tracks: ‘World Of Fantasy’, ‘My Sacrifice’, ‘Far In The Future’, ‘Who Is Mr. Madman?’

Album of the Week 33-2019: Kukryniksy – Artist


Farewell albums often are a bit of an afterthought. Musicians throw some odds and ends together or, at worst, force one more product out. ‘Artist’, the final album of Saint Petersburg-based band Kukrynisky is the mirror opposite of that. For me, ‘Artist’ is the album where they finally fulfill their full potential. The flashes of brilliance that shone through their better songs are on full display here, ultimately resulting in the band’s best set of songs to date. Everything from the songwriting to the production seems to be just right on ‘Artist’. This is truly Kukryniksy at its very best.

Kukryniksy plays a highly accessible type of gothic rock. Uncomplicated songs with memorable choruses, atmospheric melodies and beefy rhythm guitars. In that sense, ‘Artist’ is no different than the majority of their output. Igor Vornov’s rhythm guitars just seem to be slightly beefed up this time around, resulting in something which sounds like a slightly less depressed take on ‘One Second’ era Paradise Lost. Aleksey Gorshenyov is relatively subtle in his deep vocal delivery and never overpowers the songs, though his harmonies with bassist Dmitry Oganyan – who has a killer bass tone – do provide most of the choruses with their sing-along quality.

The riffy nature of ‘Artist’ immediately becomes apparent when the propulsive start-stop riffing of the title track kicks in, but the way it develops into the mysterious vocal layering in its chorus already proves that Kukryniksy has not sacrificed any of its atmospheric leanings. There are lots of other excellent rockers which are atmospheric enough to appeal to the gothic rock crowd, but accessible enough for rock radio on artist. The particularly energetic ‘Shtorm’ is my favorite of those, but the bass-driven ‘Nadezhda’, the powerful single ‘Obnimay’ and the almost mid-period Moonspell-ish ‘Vihod Iz Roli’ are all nearly as good and similar in style. ‘Ekkleziast’ is a more electronically-tinged baroque goth track, but has the same impact as the more rocking songs.

Elsewhere, Kukryniksy shows its versatility. ‘Kommivoyazhor’, for instance, combines gothic piano and bass interplay with an almost spaghetti western-ish guitar pattern and a romantic string arrangement. That might sound like it could fall apart at any moment, but no one has to teach Kukryniksy how to arrange a song and therefore, the elements come together in an elegant track. This elegance can also be heard in the expertly structured power ballad ‘Nu Vot, I Ti Ko Mnye Slinoy!’, which is given extra power by Gorshenyov’s understated vocals. ‘Posledyaya Pesnya’ (which, fittingly, means “last song”) is the perfect subdued closing statement to sum up why we should be sad the band is no more.

Ultimately, finishing on such a high note as Kukryniksy does here is always unfortunate. On the other hand, there are very few bands that ever get to craft a rock album as good as ‘Artist’. The music has the hungry, visceral power that rock music should have, but never veers into mindless volatility, because Gorshenyov is too clever a songwriter for that. All we can do now is hope that he will continue this upward trajectory for his next projects. In the meantime, any fan of the more poppy spectrum of gothic rock should just ignore the language barrier and give ‘Artist’ a spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shtorm’, ‘Obnimay’, ‘Posledyaya Pesnya’, ‘Artist’, ‘Vihod Iz Roli’

Interview: Mardelas singer Marina Hebiishi: Back to basics


Mardelas is a Japanese super group. All the members of the band have won their spurs in other bands, but appear to have found their ultimate collaboration in Mardelas. The band’s new EP ‘Ground Zero’ was released recently. A perfect moment to catch up with singer Marina Hebiishi.

Hebiishi used to be the front woman of Destrose, possibly the band that spawned the largest number of spin-off groups in Japanese history. Contrary to many other former members of all-female bands, however, Hebiishi only works together with men in Mardelas. Guitarist Kikyo Oikawa and bassist Hisayuki Motoishi played together in Screaming Symphony (with current Jupiter singer Atsushi Kuze) and drummer Hideaki Yumida – Yumi for those close to him – used to be Light Bringer’s drummer.

The music of the quartet has its foundation in the hardrock and heavy metal that Screaming Symphony, for instance, plays as well. Yet, there is plenty of room for other influences. In the past, the band experimented with funky rhythms, J-pop melodies and other unexpected twists and turns. All of the three albums and five singles the band released in the years leading up to ‘Ground Zero’ therefore sound different from each other.

Basics

For ‘Ground Zero’, Mardelas notably turned to its hardrock and heavy metal roots more prominently than before, as the singer confirms. “On Mardelas I, II en III, you can see us grow as artists“, says Hebiishi. “Certain songs have influences from various other geres. After every release, new ideas come up from touring. And just growing as an artist.

‘Mardelas III’ was our most diverse album. And it also had the deepest concept. After the tour for the album we felt the passion to go back to basics with ‘Ground Zero’, but adding another element with our special guest keyboardist Mao (ex-Light Bringer). The songs for ‘Ground Zero’ were already composed prior to Mao coming on as a guest. He did, however, write the intro ‘Time Of Tribulation’. I would say he has been influential on the song arrangements. As artists, we write what we feel, so to us, it’s never really a challenge, but our way of life and how we feel like expressing ourselves.

Freedom

Kikyo and I are the main composers in Mardelas, with Kikyo arranging how it eventually sounds. When I start writing a song, I play chord progressions, which I eventually fit to the vocal melody I have in mind. After that, the band comes together and find other ways to arrange what is already written if necessary.

Most of my lyrical writing is about the reality of life. Pain, anger, but also happiness. Feelings that all of us have to live with and somehow overcome. I try not to sugarcoat anything in my lyrics and am pretty straightforward. My lyrics are in some ways a book of my life, but other times, I also try to put myself in someone else’s emotional position.

The main thing in Mardelas is the songwriting freedom that we have. What is great about this band is that although everyone is very technical and has amazing talent as a musician, they choose not to overshadow the main melodies of the songs. Everyone has the same opinion about the song being the most important thing, not showing off how great a guitarist or musician everyone is.

That freedom does not only exist in the compositions, but also in the way they are played. Hebiishi mentions the moment that Hisayuki Motoishi was brought in to replace former bassist hibiki (Saber Tiger, Alhambra, ex-Light Bringer and Silex) as an example. “Motoishi and hibiki are two completely different types of players“, says the singer. “We didn’t want to change Mo’s playing style. So instead of trying to copy hibiki’s style, we gave him the freedom to play the older songs his own way.

Natural

On Mardelas’ studio recordings, the band often goes for layered guitar arrangements. Something which seems difficult to replicate in the live setting, with only Kikyo Oikawa on stage. Hebiishi assures us not to worry: “Kikyo is such a talented guitarist, but he is also great at building his own sound equipment. Therefore, it is not so difficult for him to translate the sound we have in the studio to the stage. It is something which comes natural to him.

Although there are currently no touring plans outside of Japan – though Hebiishi resolutely states: “I wouldn’t say no” – the band has already had a taste of playing abroad. Mardelas played the Connichi anime convention in Germany two years ago and will be playing at Metal Matsuri in London on October 4th.

Chemistry

Historically speaking, super groups are not the most stable bands. Commercial interests are too big or the approaches the band members adapt just don’t fit together. Mardelas is a different story, Hebiishi assures us: “Kikyo and I were in the same band circle back in school. We built a chemistry early on. Our bass player Hisayuki Motoishi plays with Kikyo in his band Screaming Symphony. Yumi was introduced to us by our previous bass player hibiki. When we all played together in the studio, it just felt right.

As a result, it seems like Mardelas has quite the future ahead of itself. “Many cool thinks are being talked about right now“, Hebiishi promises. “Unfortunately, it is too soon to share anything about that. Please check our social media and websites often for upcoming news.

Album of the Week 32-2019: Sex Machineguns – Barbe-Q★ Michael


A lot of people, myself included, consider Sex Machineguns’ first two albums superior to the rest of their discography. However, I do feel that their excellent third album ‘Barbe-Q★ Michael’ kind of gets lost in the shuffle because of that. There are plenty of excellent metal tracks to be found on the album and though the material is not quite as catchy as the better tracks on the first two records, the songwriting showcases a little more complexity in the guitar department especially. Despite its flaws, every Sex Machineguns album has a few, it is one of their better albums.

Not unlike ‘Made In Japan’ before it, ‘Barbe-Q★ Michael’ is essentially a speed metal album posing as something else. Nothing about the goofy artwork betrays the almost thrashy nature of the record and the first two tracks are kind of misleading, again not unlike ‘Progressive Oji-chan’ on ‘Made in Japan’. Here, we have ‘S.H.R. ~Sexy Hero Revolution~’, an oddball rocker that may have worked better if it was not opening the album, and ‘Midori No Oba-chan’, which would have been an amazing melodic hardrocker, had the verses and the main melody not been lifted note for note from Stryper’s ‘In God We Trust’.

From there, the album only gets better. Sure, there are a bunch of weird tracks like the death metal tribute or parody ‘Death’ and the inexplicably underproduced closer ‘Zenkoku Takai’, but at least those have a bunch of cool riffs going for them. On the other hand, the album also produced a number of justified live classics, such as the particularly intense, yet still melodic ‘Fire’ and the catchy stomper ‘Tabetai Nametai Kiken Chithi’, which is relatively subdued in tempo, but has a nice rock ‘n’ roll-ish groove along the heavy riffs and Anchang’s high-pitched vocals.

The lesser known material might even be superior. ‘Okami To Kirigisu’ combines a violent start-stop riff with some thrashy warp-speed gallops and a brooding pre-chorus, while ‘To-chan’ isn’t necessarily anything special, but it is evidence of how good mid-tempo thrash can be if you’re not trying too hard. The true unsung gems of ‘Barbe-Q★ Michael’, however, are ‘Aikoso Subete’ and ‘Pheromone’. The former contains the tightest, most vicious speed metal riffs of the album, a bunch of fantastic guitar solos and a fantastic understanding of how climaxes work, the latter is a relatively intricate thrasher that despite its complexity and moderately fast tempo manages to create an unsettling, almost doomy atmosphere. Both are incredble.

For all the flaws the record has – for some reason, Sex Machineguns’ humorous leanings often get in the way of creating a truly 100 percent consistent album – ‘Barbe-Q★ Michael’ is a superb piece of melodic thrash metal. In fact, the highlights of the album are some of the best thrash and speed metal released early this century. For all the odd moments and songs that just miss the mark, there is at least one incredible track. While ‘Barbe-Q★ Michael’ is not quite as essential as ‘Sex Machinegun’ and ‘Made In Japan’, it is definitely worth hearing if you like Sex Machineguns’ style.

Recommended tracks: ‘Aikoso Subete’, ‘Fire’, ‘Pheromone’, ‘Okami To Kirigisu’

Album of the Week 31-2019: Aria – Cheryez Vse Vremena


‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’ is the second album Aria recorded with their current – and best – singer Mikhail Zhitnyakov and in a way, it shows. Where its predecessor ‘Feniks’ had to reestablish them as the Iron Maiden-inspired heavy metal band they always were with their new singer, ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’ shows the Russians branching out a little. It stays true to their formula enough to not alienate any fans, but it is also a tad experimental at times, justifying their relevance three decades after their inception. That may come across as inconsistent, but it is in fact one of the band’s best albums yet.

Admittedly, the album does come acress as slightly inconsistent initially, in the sense that the album is not non-stop classic heavy metal, the way the likes of ‘Geroy Asfalta’, ‘Krov Za Krov’ or even ‘Feniks’ played. This is partially caused by the early placement of ‘Bliki Solntsa Na Vodye’, which moves from an uncharacteristically groovy, almost Badlands-ish hardrock vibe to a distinct ‘Seventh Son’-like middle section and feels a bit odd when not given the time it deserves. But really, save for that song and the excellent power ballad ‘Tochka Nyevozvrata’, expertly sung by Zhitnyakov, ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’ is an excellent contemporary metal album.

The contemporary edge the album has is mostly in the tracks guitarist Sergey Popov composed. Sure, the powerful ‘Angeli Nyeba’ is fairly traditional heavy metal – the main riff even bears a resemblance to ‘Two Minutes To Midnight’ – but the aggressive midtempo stomp of ‘Nye Schodi S Uma’ is quite modern, without sounding like a departure. His crowning achievement here, however, is ‘Gorod’, which manages to seamlessly make its way through multiple moods; subdued anger in the verses, danger in the bridge and melancholic catharsis in the wonderfully passionate chorus and the end of the solo section. Definitely one of the five greatest Aria songs to date.

During the moments when Aria sounds like one would expect them to, however, they sound just as convincing. The opening title track, for instance, combines bassist Vitaly Dubinin’s Iron Maiden influence with an almost speed metal approach, galloping viciously and ending up sounding faster and more energetic than Maiden ever did. The build-up towards the climactic chorus is genius as well. ‘Vremya Zatmyeniy’ is a powerful song built upon a propulsive triplet rhythm and ‘Ataka Myertvetsov’ a dynamic epic. Closing track ‘Begushiy Chelovek’ closes the album in driving, yet melodic eighties metal fashion.

Some bands find it difficult to stay inspired after a while. But whether it is working with a new singer or something else, Aria sounds just as inspired on ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’ as they did on their classic material. It is an album that gets better through repeated plays, as some of the songs are actually quite cleverly arranged; there is more to some of these tracks than just a good melody and a memorable chorus. In addition, this is the album on which Popov started composing material that is just as good as Dubinin’s, effectively increasing the production of good songs. And it is sonically pleasing as well. Highly recommended to anyone who likes heavy metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gorod’, ‘Cheryez Vse Vremena’, ‘Angeli Nyeba’